How Helen Thomas Rescued the White House Press Corps From Irrelevance

A colleague recalls how after Watergate, the longtime dean of the corps swore politicians would no longer get the benefit of reporters' doubt.
Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Yes, Helen Thomas was ornery, at times curmudgeonly and not the most subtle of White House correspondents. Yes, she was a much-admired gender trailblazer in an overwhelmingly white-guys profession a half-century ago. And yes, she had a blind spot for the Palestinians and an antipathy towards Israel that ultimately proved her career undoing three years ago.

But make no mistake: More than any other White House journalist of her era, Helen is responsible for turning the daily White House briefing into an appropriately adversarial institution. That will be her enduring legacy -- emboldening reporters to challenge more aggressively the self-serving spin every administration peddles.

At my maiden White House briefing in the summer of 1968, I was introduced to a mandarin of the presidential press corps. He offered me a little friendly advice: "Son, here's how it works -- they tell us what's happening and we write it down and put it in the paper."

Fortunately, that benign, unchallenging view towards power died with Watergate -- and Helen was the primary executioner.

She was furious that a couple of whippersnappers named Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had scooped the White House press corps on the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon. But she was even more enraged that Nixon's courtiers had repeatedly lied to her and her colleagues -- and that the press had all-too-willingly swallowed their baloney.

Helen felt she and the other briefing room regulars had been way too trusting - and lazy -- and vowed that any White House she covered would forfeit the benefit of the doubt henceforth.

"Never again," she swore to me one day on an Air Force One pool. "We looked like fools and let our readers down."

As a result, every press secretary since Ron Ziegler felt the sting of Helen's skeptical interrogatories. Critics who consider the White House press corps lapdogs to their sources have no clue how tame briefings once were. Presidents still get a few passes too many, but Helen permanently stiffened our collective backbones.

There was another less-noticed side to Helen Thomas -- a kindness towards less established and accomplished colleagues that many reporters will never forget.

She had a habit of befriending rookies to the White House beat -- introducing them to sources, offering common-sense advice that eased their learning curves and generally being a self-appointed godmother.

More than one former rookie on the White House beat today is no doubt remembering weekend trips with vacationing presidents where Helen would invite them to dinner with the big guns of the day -- Rather, Brokaw, Cormier, Lisagor and other legends of the business. She made us feel like we belonged when we didn't, and inspired us to dream.

Her passion for the underdog got her into trouble at the end when she suspended journalistic judgment and told the Israelis to get out of the Palestinian homeland. But many of us she inspired to be better reporters recall that zeal in a fonder personal context today.

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Tom DeFrank is a contributing editor at National Journal.

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